A House Called Dignity
It shouldn’t be like this. It just shouldn’t exist. No, not the poverty. It’s been here for decades and maybe centuries, and it will remain. It’s the insidious beauty that seemingly infiltrates everything here. This area of southeast Haiti is a veritable collision of opposites. Its paradox and tension is difficult to hold and stay with. The poverty somehow feels more okay than the beauty, more okay than the contrast. It’s easier to accept the death and disease, but the beauty is downright heresy. A cardinal sin. It is unacceptable. And it surrounds me. It inundates.
A wise person once said that beauty calls forth humanity. Perhaps it is the beauty that calls forth the profound dignity from the hearts of the people here. Maybe beauty can save. Yet the only thing I can seem to do is collapse under its weight. The people here seem to have been crafted by master artisans. The cut, toned muscles of the men and the sculpted breasts of the women are ubiquitous. Everywhere I look, a beautiful Haitian walks, sits, or works–23 years or 75 years old–the difference is little either in age or proportion. Men, women, elderly, and children. Even the feral dogs are gorgeous compared to their siblings that I’ve seen in many other developing nations.
Then there’s the ocean itself–charismatic and moody. Blue and green and clear with magic. Always changing, beauty is its only constant. There are muscular young boys and a few little girls with grins splashing around in the waves. Some of them are popping to their feet on 8’ foam longboards from Costco, courtesy of Dr. Ken Pierce and his surfing project here at Kabic Beach near Jacmel–Surf Haiti. They hoot and holler. The stoke permeates anyone and anything in the vicinity. And the stoke, too, is beautiful. The laughter is loud, the smiles wider than any I’ve ever seen. White, toothy grins that indeed shouldn’t exist here in this place of seething poverty. It’s a heresy – not that the poverty exists, but that the beauty exists alongside of it. The paradoxical nature of it is a thorny thing to navigate and accept. It messes with the mind. It results in a plunge into paradox’s own nation–Haiti. Even the voodoo masks donned by the celebrants of the local festival, known as Karnival, are eerily magnificent and haunting. Because Haiti haunts. Its death and poverty and remnants of the earthquake’s havoc are alive and well.
And we can handle that. It’s the beauty that is intolerable. Far easier is it to tolerate destruction, anger, shame and poverty than it is to tolerate scandalous beauty–the mystery of the human heart and psyche. We want to push it away or even pretend we can handle it, accept it, let it consume us. But we cannot. At least I cannot.
For these ten days, I am adopted by the people of Kabic Beach. I am an elder brother to the boys I share waves with each day. I am a younger brother of Dr. Ken Pierce who founded and runs the Surf Haiti community development project. I am the son of the lady who cooks me breakfast and dinner nearly every night out of her tiny house next door to where I sleep. I am adopted by beauty, if only for ten days, in a land of the marginalized and poor. Somehow, it feels like I am home.
“Sa se kay mwen! Sa se kay mwen,” she shouts frantically. “This is my house! This is my house!” Probably in her mid 40’s, the poverty that had inundated her existence since she was a little girl made her look well beyond her years. A young-but-ancient carrier of the flame of Haiti’s potent and mired past. She exuded broken beauty. She called out to us with a subtle strength tempered with a pervasive kindness. She was paradox incarnate, a made-in-the-flesh collision of opposites; a microcosm of Haiti itself. She was a daughter of Haiti, and I her adopted son for a few sanctified moments. She yelled louder than a lady of her wounds and pain should be able to yell; a yell of profound hope and unfathomable beauty. It was a call that we could not answer because we had given away all of the water filters that we brought up the mountain that day. She ran after our vehicle, demanding with an almost Mona Lisa grin, that we come back as soon as we could to give her one. From a socioeconomic standpoint, she is among the poorest in the western hemisphere. But is she poor? And what is poverty?
What we in developed nations call “extreme poverty,” or poverty that is so sadistic that it kills human life. Murderous poverty that disallows access to medicine and clean water and proper nutrition—indeed, extreme. And so as she runs after us chugging down this abrupt dirt track in our Gator—a type of glorified four-wheel-drive golf cart— she, the daughter of Haiti and of extreme poverty, shouts out something else in each cry of her sacred words, “Sa se kay mwen!” In between the beauty of each Creole syllable spoken is a sacred laugh and a consecrated cry, a demand for clean water alongside an unabashed acceptance of who she is and where she lives. Does she know she is one of the poorest 40-somethings in Haiti, in the western hemisphere? Does she know what her poverty is doing to me as she sprints on legs that should be dreadfully frail but somehow are stronger than mine? Does she know she is a bearer of riches to me? Out of her severe lack, she offers not a taste of her extreme poverty, but of her radical beauty. Her tattered and torn shirt that hangs down below her bony knees screams along with her, “This is my house!” And silently, without words, between each syllable, she cries out, “Look at me! I am dignity’s own child. Yes, a young but ancient woman of Haiti and poverty and a lack of everything, I am indeed. Nonetheless, I am a daughter of Haiti, a daughter of dignity. Can you not see it?”
Her heart melts me into tears that I fear releasing. When I return to her memory, to her poised stance, to her striped shirt, to her wrinkled face, and to the substance in her voice, something happens inside me. I become her son again, and my own dignity lost begins to return to me. Once again, tears come. This time, I let them be there for a moment. Just one short moment as her words reverberating in my mind fade. “Sa se kay mwen! Sa se kay mwen!” “This is my house! This is my house!”
In Haiti, in a place called Kabic Beach, windswell arrives like clockwork each day. It’s hardly ever flat; it’s hardly ever 6’ and perfect, either. But with the short period, often chunky waves arrives something else: dignity for girls and boys who are learning how to surf. In this nation rooted in both poverty and dignity, a wave is more than a wave. The wave is an answer to this kid’s silent calls for laughter and stoke and connection to one another and the earth. And in the hills above this beach break lies a house, or more of shack, where she lives. I know not her name, only her voice and the subtle and swift movements of her sprint. Her shouts of dignity resound down to the beach, into the waves, through to the hearts of these children who push up to their feet and taste the glide. As they rise to their feet, held up by her cries, an intergenerational communion between them is birthed, and nothing can ever be the same.